It is difficult to overstate the quality, diversity, and accessibility of London’s museums. Last week I was fortunate enough to visit the Tate Modern, Natural History Museum, and Imperial War Museum, each of which was amazing in its own way.
I was particularly affected by The Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust Exhibit, as well as that on The Children’s War.
This major exhibition looks at the home front in Britain through the eyes of children, providing a unique and moving insight into the impact of the war on the children who lived through it. An exhibition suitable for children and adults alike.
Taking a child’s perspective on such topics as evacuation, air raids, rationing and the blackout, the positive and negative aspects of the war are illustrated through original letters, diaries, artefacts, photographs and oral recordings.
I’d seen some of the Mickey Mouse Gas Masks before, but only in pictures, and never with this degree of historical context. The model shown in the Museum lacks the large round ears I’d seen in other models, losing the surreal edge and moving instead into simple sadness. I can only imagine the fear and desperation of parents bringing their children the brightly-colored masks (worn by the mannequin on the right-hand side). I found the colors a futile attempt to make war less scary, but my son tells me the under-7 set truly would find them reassuring, and much easier to take than the standard issue gray.
It wasn’t long after our visit to the Imperial War Museum that war escalated in the Gaza strip, and anti-Israeli protests began a few yards from the front door of our rented flat. Being near the Israeli Embassy meant transportation got a little more complicated as the street was often blocked, and conversations with my husband and son about war and free speech felt closer to the heart. The Holocaust Exhibit had convinced me of Heinrich Heine’s words, “Whenever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn people,” so I found solace in the protection of civil dissent both in the US and UK.
One afternoon last week, about an hour from London, a friend of the family spoke with quiet confidence about losing her family home to The Blitz, about the bout of pneumonia that nearly took her infant life that year, and about the doctor’s note that brought her family back into housing with real walls and saved her life. These are legacies of war that those of us on this side of the Pond don’t often get to hear.
The pictures of children on the front pages of the London Mail didn’t feel so far away, as I listened to the protests, and as I listened to my friend. I wish there were easy answers.